Something was wrong with Fern. She was lopsided and breaking out in worrisome splotches. Illy was afraid to touch her because little papery brown leaves kept falling to the floor, like Fern was suffering through some terrible plant chemotherapy. Illy felt completely helpless. How did one support a dying plant? She sat on the floor and leaned against the ridges of the radiator, stroking the sides of Fern’s pot. There was so much trauma in life already- Illy didn’t think it was fair that she had to add plant suffering to the list.
“Come on old girl. You’re okay, right? It’s springtime. You should be excited and rejuvenated. You should be…procreating.” Illy paused. Did plants have an innate need to reproduce in spring? Was Fern needing plant sex? It made sense really. All her friends were out there shooting off their little seeds and receiving them from their virile neighbouring ferns, and here she was, stuck behind the window, lonely and unfulfilled. “Oh no you don’t,” Illy glared at Fern. “You will not project your needs on to me. I am perfectly happy and fulfilled. You’re the one who needs help.” More withered leaves fell to the floor. “I’ll see what I can do.” Illy wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of asking the guy at the garden centre for a lonely male fern in need of companionship. Maybe she could send her mother.
Illy’s phone rang. She patted the side of Fern’s pot in reassurance and reached for her phone.
“Oh, Illy. Thank goodness. Can I come over?”
Illy couldn’t tell if June sounded excited or distraught. “Of course. Come right away.”
”Thank you, thank you. I’ll be there in five.” The call ended. After eleven years, you were allowed to skip the niceties.
Illy wondered what could be going on. June sounded too coherent for a break up, and she was pretty sure it was too early for a proposal. June’s job at the community college was unlikely to warrant an emergency visit, it wasn’t nearly time for her annual physical, and her dad wasn’t due in town until next month. This was clearly not an ordinary June situation. She’d better brew a big pot of coffee.
Illy was pulling out June’s favourite ceramic mug- the one Illy had made in her short-lived pottery stage and that no one but June was allowed to see- when there was a knock at her door. She had already half-opened the door when she realized with some confusion that she hadn’t buzzed June in through the front door. This was accompanied by the even more disturbing realization that she was still in her bathrobe. It wasn’t even the Tibetan bathrobe that she had bought at a global hippie store downtown for way too much money in case of a night time fire alarm involving a street gathering of strangers and fire fighters. It was a terrible flowered satin thing that her mother had given her as a hand-me-down years ago. It was so short it barely covered her butt and always gaped way too low in the front. She tried to scoot behind the door as she opened it, peering around in what she hoped was a relaxed and hospitable manner.
It was Dave.
“Hi Ilia. Sorry to bother you, but I’m looking for Nancy, and- are you okay?”
Illy realized she probably hadn’t needed to open the door quite so wide, as she was now squished up against the wall, still peering around the edge of the door like some body-less butler from the Addam’s Family.
“Yeah, sorry, Dave. You just caught me by surprise and I’m not exactly dressed.” Dave’s lips pressed together in a remarkably straight line as his eyes widened just a little. Illy couldn’t tell if it was an excited or horrified eye-widening, but she was offended either way. “I mean I’m not naked or anything, it’s just, my mother is a lot shorter than I am and so-” This was ridiculous. “I haven’t seen Nancy, sorry.“ She started to shut the door.
“Well, thanks anyway. I guess I’ll see you at the meeting tonight.” Dave turned towards his apartment.
“Meeting?” Illy forgot her attire and stepped into the doorway. “What meeting?”
Dave turned back, then averted his eyes. It was too late to jump back behind the door. Illy figured she’d let him be the awkward one for a while. She even felt a strange satisfaction in the fact that she hadn’t shaved her legs in a week. This was a freedom she would need to explore at a future date, but for now she was scrambling through the jumbled files in her mind, wondering which one held the forgotten committee that she and Dave were both apparently on.
“The Writers Meeting. I assumed you’d be there since you’re a writer and all.” Dave scratched the strip of exposed skin trying to escape below the jacket of his beige track suit. It was Illy’s turn to avert her eyes. “Actually I thought you had probably initiated it. Didn’t you see the poster by the mailboxes?” He kept scratching. Illy wondered if his hairy belly acted as a comforting replacement in Nancy’s absence.
“No, well, I actually was part of the initial brainstorming process, but I hadn’t realized that a specific time was already set.” Dave was studying the ceiling. Illy was still staring at his belly strip, trying to process this new information. Goth Boy must have been the one who put up the poster. “But, yeah, of course, I’ll be there. See you tonight.” She shut the door before she’d even finished talking.
A Writers Club meeting tonight. It had been a week since Margaret had encouraged Illy to start the club. She’d had the best intentions, of course, but the thought of it triggered such full body flashbacks to junior high birthday party planning that she never made it past the question of who to invite. Now Goth Boy had saved her from that agony. But what in the world was she going to bring to read? Her actual repertoire of written work was instantly exposed for the meagre collection it was.
There was another knock on the door. Illy still had her hand on the doorknob and swung it wide open, assuming Dave was announcing that he had found Nancy. She sort of enjoyed seeing Dave suffer through a bit of embarrassment and didn’t even bother tucking her stubbly legs behind the door.
“Illy? Were you just waiting by the door or something? And what are you wearing?”
“It’s a long story. Come in. How’d you get in without buzzing me?”
June was already kicking off her flipflops. She was one of those people who started wearing flipflops after Groundhog Day whether there was still snow on the ground or not. It was part of her life philosophy, along with a refusal to use her car air conditioner after August. June operated on the faith that weather patterns- and the universe in general- would bend to her expectations if she enacted them with confidence. “The guy across the hall let me in. He was standing at the door calling for Nancy. You’ve got the weirdest neighbours.”
“You have no idea. Help yourself to some coffee. I’m going to put some clothes on.” Illy went to her bedroom and threw on the first clothes she saw crumpled on the floor. She did a quick odor check of the t-shirt as she pulled it over her head, then made a commitment to herself to never leave her bedroom in the satin housecoat again. Some things just weren’t worth the risk.
When she got to the kitchen, June had already poured two big mugs of coffee and was sitting at the table, knees pulled to her chest, fingers tapping her shins. Illy noticed that there was even milk in June’s coffee, which she took as a bad sign. June had started drinking her coffee black when she turned eighteen, determined to acquire a taste for what she called “the adult way.” It had something to do with a John Wayne movie she’d seen and Illy thought she was ridiculous, but she let June suffer through it. Illy had started taking triple cream in subconscious compensation.
She sat down at the table, closed her eyes for the first sip of coffee, then set the mug down and leaned back in her chair. “What in the world is going on, June? Is everything okay?”
“Illy,” June took a deep breath. “I’ve found you a man.”
Illy stared at June. She was trying to figure out how this constituted a milk-in-the-coffee situation. “A man? June, I don’t need a man. I’m perfectly content on my own.” She glanced toward Fern in the living room, wondering if she’d somehow been conspiring with June.
“I know, I know. You’re wonderful and fulfilled and you don’t need a relationship. It’s not that I’ve been putting out ads for you or anything. It’s just that this man has appeared in our lives and destiny does not take well to being ignored. “
Illy rolled her eyes.
“Seriously, Illy. Destiny.”
They drank their coffee in silence. Illy was deciding if she even wanted to continue down this conversational and potentially relational path. The last guy she’d dated had definitely brought more trauma than fulfillment into her life. She’d met him at a friend’s wedding and been swept away by the movie-like romance of it all. He was tall and dark, wearing a gangster style pinstripe suit and had charmed her with his compliments and impressive vocabulary. After a few dates she discovered that he was coming out of a long stretch of drug experimentation and street fights, but he was so sincere in his commitment to change that she’d fallen for him. There was something about the combination of late night philosophical discussions and those droopy green eyes that she just hadn’t been able to resist, despite the warnings from June and her own better judgment. Of course it had ended eventually, after way too much emotional exposure on her part, and she’d been more than happy to remain independent and emotionally stable ever since.
“I don’t think I’m interested, June. Really. I’m loving my life right now. Awkward goodnights and clammy handholding just don’t seem like the better option at this point.” Illy was impressed with herself. There would definitely have been a point a few years ago when she would have jumped at the prospect of a Man of Destiny, but not right now. Not this morning, when sitting here drinking coffee with June and then spending the day writing sounded altogether more appealing.
“But Illy, you have to at least meet him.” June was pulling her curly hair into an elaborate pile on her head. She reached for her coffee spoon and jabbed it into the middle of the pile, creating an effect that would take any normal human two hours and a crate of bobby pins. Illy worked very hard at not resenting June’s relationship with her hair. “He’s fun and funny and smart and kind and just came back from a year in Botswana with the Peace Corps, for goodness sake.”
“Already suspicious. No one in real life actually works with the Peace Corps. It’s altogether too cliché. He probably just got out of prison.” Illy poured herself another cup of coffee. For a moment she even considered drinking it black as a sign of her inner strength, but abandoned that idea after the first sip. She could still be strong with lots of milk and sugar.
“You’re missing out, I promise. You two could come out with me and Steve. It would be very relaxed and low pressure. He’s wonderful,” she added in a sing song voice as though trying to convince Illy to take some cough medicine.
“I’ll keep it in mind. Today, though, I’ve got bigger things to worry about. Tonight is the first meeting of an Apartment Writers Club.” Illy felt an uncomfortable constriction in her throat. Maybe she was getting strep and should skip the first meeting to avoid infecting her neighbours.
“Wow, that’s great! That’s exactly what you were hoping for, isn’t it?”
Illy nodded and tried to swallow, surprised to feel tears collecting in the corners of her eyes. Sometimes it seemed like her emotions held secret meetings without her, planning embarrassing moments to jump out from behind the furniture and surprise her with her own intense feelings.
“Then what’s wrong?” June was confused.
“Well, for one thing, I only found out about it ten minutes ago, so I have no time to mentally prepare. For another, I have no writing to bring. And lastly-” She felt like June, who regularly talked in outline form, but never quite correctly. She’d introduce her three points as 1A, 2A, and 3A, then leave it at that. It cracked Illy up every time and she noticed that she was acquiring the outline habit. “Lastly, I’m scared. What if they think my writing is terrible? What if I have nothing intelligent to say about anyone else’s writing? What if they all write sexy grown up postmodern fiction about incest and cigarettes and I bring a piece about elderly women eating yoghurt and discussing cellulite?” Illy groaned. “Also, I think I have strep throat. So I probably shouldn’t go.”
“Of course you’ll go.” June ignored the strep. She had little patience for Illy’s medical anxieties. “Illy, this is exactly what you want and need to do. You’re a great writer. Who cares what other people write about? Not everyone wants to read about cigarette incest, or whatever. I personally would love to read about women and cellulose. You have to go. It will be so great. Promise.”
Illy wiped her tears with her sleeve. What in the world did people do without a friend like June to keep them going? Of course she was right- it didn’t matter what other people wrote. But that still didn’t change the fact that she had no actual piece of writing to bring. She needed to get to work.
“You need to get to work.” June was beyond observant. “And I need to get to the gym. My body is taking on a disturbingly marshmallow-like consistency. Apparently this is the difference between early twenties and pre-mid-twenties. Why did no one warn me?” June finished her coffee and stood up. “Be sure to get lots of writing done today. I’ll call later to see what you’ve accomplished. And of course I’ll call again even later to hear about the club.” She gave Illy a quick hug and headed to the door. “And don’t forget about Mr. Peace Corps! I’ll pass on his number as soon as you say the word.”
Illy smiled and heard the door shut. It was time to write.
Continue Reading: Chapter Thirteen